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2023 Presidential Election: The future in the present

By this time next month, the campaign season would have commenced officially. New provisions of the Electoral Act, 2022 require that campaigns start not earlier…

By this time next month, the campaign season would have commenced officially. New provisions of the Electoral Act, 2022 require that campaigns start not earlier than 180 days to the date of the election, as against 90 days in the previous acts. That means the presidential campaign season will kick off, on paper, on the 25th September, and run for six months until 24 hours before election day on  February 24, 2023.

New rules almost always beget new practices. But for all intents and purposes, the presidential campaign has been on throughout this year, and certainly since the conclusion of party primaries and nomination of presidential candidates in late May and early June. More than that, it would appear that the future has arrived early and the shape of the campaigns look to have been well established by now. As in any election, some 70 per cent to 80 per cent of voters may have already made up their minds which way their votes would go. So, we can, at least, guesstimate the presidential campaigns of the four leading parties in this election.

In April this year, when the New Nigerian Peoples Party (NNPP)—a previously unknown but registered party—was reinvigorated by the infusion of new political blood from The National Movement (TNM), which itself had only been formed two months earlier in February, not a few Nigerians thought it would likely mount an insurgent campaign and realise the yearnings of a large section of the electorate for a “third force” that would wrestle power from either the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) or the main opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). For one, the leader and convener of TNM and former governor of Kano State, Dr Rabiu Musa Kwankwaso is a thorough grassroots politician whose political mobilisation skills were honed in the days of the old Peoples Redemption Party (PRP).

Therefore, that Kwankwaso was the major driver of the NNPP and the party’s eventual presidential flagbearer stirred up a lot of expectations among many Nigerians. The very strong launch of the fusion of TNM and the NNPP, with not a few political heavyweights across the country, the gale of defections from the APC or PDP to NNPP in Kano and the stirring of local politics in many a northern state following the spread of the party across more states, and Kwankwaso’s eventual emergence as the presidential flagbearer of the NNPP all lent credence to the high expectations of the party.   

But today, and going into the election, it is clearer now what the NNPP as a party and its presidential candidate can do or not. As things stand, the NNPP will be a third force for sure and well positioned to cause a serious upset in several northern states, particularly in Kano, but also in Bauchi, Plateau, Taraba and Borno. And then it might as well do the same in Niger, where the publisher and popular aspirant Idris Malagi might well still emerge as the party’s candidate to give the APC and PDP a run for their money in the state. Still, while only a few months ago in April and May, the NNPP and its presidential candidate would likely rank third in name recognition, it has since been pushed back to fourth by the rising fortunes of former Governor of Anambra State, Peter Obi and his Labour Party (LP).

In short, while the NNPP may well emerge as a strong regional party, and no one should be surprised if it clinched a few governorship tickets, as well as national and state legislative seats in some northern states, it is a long way from being the third force at the national level in this election. And since politics is the art of the possible, it might well be a good strategy for the party to focus its attention and resources where they are best able to achieve realistic results. There is always the opportunity for a national party to negotiate with more national parties for a seat at the national table.

The Labour Party and its presidential candidate, Peter Obi, represent almost the exact opposite of what the NNPP looks like at present and going into the election. He and his party are quite strong at the national level, but they lack the crucial representation they need in the governorship and legislative elections. Peter Obi is the third, if not the second, most popular candidate in this presidential election today. Having benefitted from the religious feelings surrounding the exit of Vice President Osinbajo in the APC primaries, the long-held yearning for Igbo presidency among the Igbos, and the flirtations of the uncommitted voters and young people for a third force, Peter Obi’s fortunes in this election can only rise higher.

But as at today, I have two comments for his campaign. First, Peter Obi is almost like the early Buhari of the 2023-2011 elections. His supporters appear certainly as die-hard as those of the early Buhari. And like Buhari in his pre-2015 elections, he appears to want to skim the presidential milk from the top, without much work at the base. He now enjoys wide and deep support among certain sections of the electorate, at least going by what a friend called “pre-election noise” today. But as the painful history of Buhari’s early campaigns show, that may not be enough to reach the finishing line in Nigeria’s very complex presidential election.

And there lies the second point about Peter Obi’s campaign. The energies of his supporters must be carefully marshalled in the event the election turns up a different outcome than they expect. Anyone who followed Buhari from 2003-2011 would recognise the hidden message in the previous sentence. Still, Obi’s prospects are high and can only get higher, but whether they would lead to victory is left to be seen.

And then, there is the campaign of former Vice President Atiku Abubakar of the PDP. Of the four top candidates under analysis here, he is probably in the worst shape right now. While Tinubu, Obi and even Kwankwaso all have an electoral base, which they look to expand, the rise of Peter Obi has almost wiped out Atiku’s support in the south eastern and south-south states. The PDP’s obsession with placating the unplacatable governor of Rivers State has further damaged Atiku’s campaign and presented him as a weak candidate dependent on the whims of a man who, at best, can only deliver one state, if at all.

Moreover, Atiku’s open criticism of the APC’s so-called Muslim-Muslim ticket was perhaps the single most foolhardy political move by a politician at that level that I can remember in Nigerian politics. It was probably a principled position and certainly appealed to certain categories of voters. But I seriously doubt if it would win the PDP presidential candidate any votes from the very category of voters that criticism was designed to attract. Worse still, it would likely lose Atiku the votes of the very section of the electorate he needs to breathe new life into his campaign. All told, the PDP candidate’s campaign is presently between the rock and a hard place: the rise of Obi may have out-muscled him in the south and among some minorities in the north; and yet, he does not appear to be making up among the voters in his own backyard.

What then, can we say at this point, about the candidacy of the fourth titan in this election: former Governor of Lagos State, Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu? That will take a whole article by itself.